ST. GEORGE — Six months into their first term on the St. George City Council, the two freshmen members knew it was going to be challenging. Little could they have imagined everything they would face heading into June would be demanding.
Across the globe, COVID-19 came out of left field and took everyone by surprise. Add in the responsibility of governing a city of more than 85,000 and growing, it could all have quickly become overwhelming. But rookie City Council members Gregg McArthur and Dannielle Larkin said it didn’t.
“Obviously Gregg and I have had a bit of a wild ride,” Larkin said. “Being the new kids on the block, we found that we jumped into a situation that has become precarious.”
Along with having to make decisions to ensure public health and safety during the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and social protests, the council has had to do a complete 180-degree turn on the 2020-21 budget.
Even while it was in the final stages prior to adoption, city officials, its governing board and executive departments found they had to redo and rethink their budget needs and wants.
“We had our budget ready to go in March and then we basically had to start over from scratch and make some big cuts,” Larkin said. “But, this is what cities do. We thrive in challenging times as well as good times. This is why we’ve created cities – it’s to help each other.”
Before COVID-19, the city was experiencing a strong increase in sales tax revenue of approximately 7.5%. However, since the pandemic struck, it has experienced a loss of about $388,000 per month. This decreased the estimate for the fiscal year 2021 by approximately 30% – a decrease of more than $4.6 million or 21%.
During her campaign for a seat on the St. George City Council, Larkin’s focus was community well-being.
“Now more than ever this is true,” she said. “With the challenges we face as a community, we have the opportunity to come together. What makes us great is highlighted now during the pandemic, social unrest and the questions we are asking.”
Although every community has its vocal opponents to anything and everything, Larkin said the city always tries to base its decisions on what is best for the many and not for the few.
“By far the majority of the people understand the struggles,” she added. “Most of the people in Southern Utah are really good about listening and then taking action in a peaceful, positive way.”
Although things haven’t been easy, there are solutions Larkin said.
“I expected we would have challenges, but I knew our community would handle them,” she added. “Things have been wild, things we couldn’t have seen them coming, but this is exactly what I expected to happen.”
Larkin sites the pro-active approach to governing by city officials, Mayor Jon Pike, City Manager Adam Lenhard, and Interim Police Chief Kyle Whitehead, who she said have played a key role in keeping the ship right during the past few months.
Looking forward, Larkin realizes while the 2020-21 St. George budget has fiscal impacts that cut across all departments, going into the 2021-22 budget the city is in better shape than others, but it still could be a continued uphill battle to recover 100% before the challenges of 2020 hit.
“I am cautiously optimistic that we will come out of this,” Larkin said. ” We will survive not completely unscathed, but we will have learned valuable lessons and be okay at the end of the day.”
To our benefit, she said, the city practices a responsible approach to spending, enjoy adequate cash reserves in its departments and cut financial fat where “we” can. Everything combined “makes us stronger than other cities which find themselves in trouble when money is tight.”
McArthur mirrors the views of his contemporary newbie on the board.
“COVID has been the worst thing of my last six months to happen,” McArthur said. “It’s been tough to see all the things we can’t do right now, the things that have been postponed or cut back and the hardships endured by the community and its businesses because of the virus.”
McArthur’s day job with NAI Excel as its director of hospitality, specializing in buying, selling and developing hotels, puts him in a unique position on how the pandemic has affected St. George.
“COVID has made things extremely challenging,” McArthur said. “The focus is as a council we want people to be safe, but we also want things to return to normal.”
A thriving community is the primary goal, he added.
“We want to provide the things needed to move forward,” McArthur said. “This means assistance and policies to promote that goal.”
Echoing Larkin, McArthur added right now it’s budget, budget, budget.
“Sales tax revenues have slowed down, which affects the city,” he said. “So, all city departments really have to watch their budgets. Things that are needed we will continue, but if it’s something that would be nice it’s going to be put on hold.”
When communities finally come out of the end of what has been a very dark tunnel during the past six months, McArthur said there is hope for the future.
“Things are moving forward and I think it is a positive movement,” he said. “But, you have to put an asterisk on everything. We don’t want to force anything and we want to keep everyone safe, but we want to give opportunity where opportunity is available.”
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